06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
The idea was born at an Ohio fish fry: "Why is there no World War II memorial in Washington?" shouted Roger Durbin, then a 66-year-old WWII vet, to his visiting congresswoman, Marcy Kaptur, back in 1987. It was a fair question—and it has taken 17 years for the country to provide an answer.
More than 117,000 visitors are expected to converge on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on May 29 for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, a $175 million granite-and-bronze tribute to the bravery of the 16 million Americans who served in the conflict. The result of an effort spearheaded by Kaptur and supporters like Tom Hanks and Bob Dole, the 7.4-acre monument has 56 columns (one for each of the states, territories and the District of Columbia), two arches (for the war's Pacific and Atlantic theaters) and 4,000 representing the 400,000 Americans who perished.
For some, the memorial's unveiling, which comes nearly 60 years after VJ Day, is bittersweet. Fewer than a quarter of the vets who survived the war are still alive—and they're dying at the rate of 1,100 a day. Roger Durbin, the Ohio mail carrier whose question sparked the drive to build the monument, lived only long enough to see the selection of its site in 1995. The memory of his service, however, and the legacy of the many who fought beside him, is now enshrined forever. "When all of us old soldiers are gone, when we're just a memory or a picture in a scrapbook," says Jimmie Kanaya, 83, who as an Army second lieutenant was captured by the Nazis in France and held for six months in German POW camps, "this will be a reminder."